By Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn
The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES - This is shaping up as a very good year for BET.
Just three months into 2003 - after a major programming overhaul - Black Entertainment Television has seen double-digit increases in advertising and subscribers (now at 74 million households). And BET attained its highest ever prime-time ratings in January.
Then there's BET's gospel music programming, which eclipses even the popular BET Nightly News With Jacque Reid. The gospel slate, which occupies most of the network's Sunday schedule, complements BET's weekday countdown show, 106 & Park, which routinely gets better ratings than MTV's Total Request Live, and is the network's most watched program.
"It's been terrific for us," Debra Lee, president of the 23-year-old cable channel. "It shows us that our viewers are happy with what we're doing in the changes that we're making in programming."
But not everyone is happy.
A small yet vocal group of high-profile blacks - including filmmaker Spike Lee and cartoonist Aaron McGruder, who recurrently jabs BET in his comic strip "Boondocks" - says BET is selling out.
They accuse BET - which media conglomerate Viacom bought for $3 billion in 2000 - of promoting ghetto-centric stereotypes by running low-cost, lowbrow comedies and hip-hop music videos. BET's new programs are reruns of shows from other Viacom properties: UPN's The Parkers and Girlfriends, and Showtime's Soul Food.
"They need a South Park or a Sopranos - a show that draws viewers like The Shield did for FX," said R. Thomas Umstead of Multichannel News, an industry trade magazine. "They have to find a show that defines the network. . . . Viacom (which owns CBS, MTV, Nickelodeon and Paramount) can be very helpful in this regard, but it hasn't shown that yet."
And that's what concerns critics such as Robin R. Means Coleman, author of Say It Loud! African-American Audiences, Media and Identity.
"Viacom is investing absolutely no money in (original) programming," said Coleman. "What happens across UPN, BET, CBS and Showtime is this homogenization. ... There is no diversity in the ideas or the images that they're disseminating about African-American culture."
BET has been criticized for canceling three public affairs shows - Lead Story, Teen Summit and BET Tonight With Ed Gordon - in an effort to cut costs and make room for more entertainment programming.
Such criticism irks Debra Lee.
"It's just people criticizing something that they don't understand and it's really irritating," she said. "We've done (public affairs) shows for years and no one watched these shows, and now we cancel them and people are like, 'Oh my God, they're deserting news,' instead of pointing to the good fact that we have one of the best news shows on TV."
Lee also defended her acquired sitcoms as "the highest-rated shows in black households - high-rated, quality shows that happen to be produced by our sister network. ... That's why we did the Viacom deal in the first place, so we wouldn't be a stand-alone organization."
Besides, at more than $1 million per episode, original programming is a substantial - and risky - investment. So Lee says she'll continue to shop around for cheaper acquired series and original reality shows.
"Until our advertising rates reach what ABC, NBC and CBS receive, it's going to take us awhile to get there," she said.
That's not to say BET hasn't developed some scripted shows of its own - well, kind of. The March 4 premiere of the animated adult series Hey Monie was the third-highest debut of the season for BET, which is teaming with Oxygen cable channel to co-produce and finance the daily gal pal show.
Oxygen will run Hey Monie as a weekday series in July.
Radio note: WRRM-FM (98.5) will broadcast a radiothon fund-raiser for Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and the Children's Miracle Network today through Sunday from the hospital. Local donations will pay for equipment, patient care and research here, says a hospital spokesman.
TV today: PBS' Frontline looks at the political fallout for British Prime Minister Tony Blair's support of the Iraq war (9 p.m., Channel 48; 10 p.m., Channel 16).
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